HR Roundtable: Why Is Collaboration So Hard?

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Jan 25, 2018

As the great business mogul Vanilla Ice suggested, we need to stop, collaborate and listen! Who knew that his classic song Ice Ice Baby would be so prophetic? Collaboration is something that companies express as an aspiration, but few do it well. The December (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable gathered to talk about various aspects of collaboration, and started with these three conversation starters:

  1. What things get in the way of collaboration in companies?
  2. What does effective collaboration look like?
  3. Why does this matter?

The discussion in the small group breakouts was energetic and engaging. After everyone had a chance to chime in, the groups reconvened and this is what they had to share.

1. What things get in the way of collaboration in companies?

People — This seems a bit obvious, but people are the biggest inhibitor of collaboration. It’s like when we were kids and there were certain ones who didn’t want to play or join in. It is childish, but the “I don’t want to” approach is prevalent in organizations. The challenge to this is that it is usually subtle versus obvious.

Politics — This isn’t geared towards the political scene outside the four walls. It’s the constant maneuvering and posturing of people to get their agenda seen, heard and “passed.” It is similar to the external political movements that we all bemoan, but we allow it inside our companies. Politics are a fact. The question you have to ask is: Are you willing to call it out when it makes it difficult to collaborate?

Weak organizational structure — When there is ambiguity in the structure of an organization, then there is more indecisiveness than action. Employees will complain about this type of culture, but they will do little to call it out and work towards changing it.

Silo thinking — People are fiercely territorial! They are set on doing work within their own realm and don’t see the need to go outside of it. This isn’t isolated to one specific department either. You tend to hear people point fingers and complain of “others” being in silos, but the reality is that we are much more comfortable in our own area of work and expertise. It’s a huge obstacle to overcome.

Resistance to change — The topic in November was “disruption,” which is the new trend in companies. It’s being touted because people don’t like change. Ironically, change occurs even though people are resistant to it. The difficulty is that when we ask people to step outside their comfort zone and collaborate with others, the walls go up. It doesn’t feel natural to collaborate, so we resist it. People would much rather stay in their own lane instead of traveling to another destination by a different route.

2. What does effective collaboration look like?

Ideas are out in the open — We tend to throw the word “transparency” around way too often. This isn’t a good thing to do because few people agree on what level of information is transparent. An alternative way to look at this is allowing ideas to be expressed, reviewed, challenged and considered. It sounds simple, but it isn’t regularly practiced. Usually we hear the ideas of the people who are the loudest only. Collaboration seeks to get ideas from all who are involved.

Honest communication where people aren’t jaded — This would be amazing if people could do this consistently. Most people actually desire this type of communication at work. What they run up against though is the heavy sigh or the eye roll when someone disagrees with what is shared. To change this the person leading the effort/team/project has to address it. It shouldn’t be public shaming. Pull the person who’s displeased aside and hear why they don’t agree. Then, coach them on how to listen to other’s ideas as well as how to express their own. It’s an opportunity for them to grow and get better. Help them to not be skeptical and jaded.

Trust – both earned and given — Whenever the issue of “trust” comes up, you have to ask if trust is earned or given. Steve did this and the majority of people felt trust needed to be earned. He disagreed because if you use that thinking, how can it happen? Who is the first person to “earn” if trust is never given? We tend to think that trust has to be earned because we’ve all been burnt by someone. What we forget is that we’ve burned someone as well. Collaboration has a better chance to succeed when trust is given first. When it is damaged or lost, which will happen, then it’s up to the leader to give trust again.

Give people permission to participate — Collaboration doesn’t just magically happen. People are hesitant to participate because of the items listed above and bad experiences they’ve had when someone disappoints them, shoots down their ideas/input, or communicates just enough while holding things back. Giving people permission to participate is a huge shift missing in today’s workplaces. When people are allowed to perform, they will.

Make the time for collaboration — This runs contrary to how organizations act. We’re so consumed with getting things done and checked off lists that we fake collaboration, or get frustrated with it, because we feel it takes too much time. All things of value deserve an investment of time. When things are rushed for the sake of getting done, there is often rework that could have been minimized if collaboration had been allowed for a period of time. Granted, you shouldn’t let things drag on and on, but you do need to be intentional in setting time aside for collaboration.

Leadership needs to be approachable — Steve mentioned an incredible resource for this fact of leadership. It’s a book by Phillip Wilson called The Approachability Playbook. Phil does a great job making the case that the more approachable a person is, the more effective a leader they are. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book. You’ll use it as a daily resource!

3. Why does this matter?

Collaboration ensures companies will operate more effectively — This isn’t aspirational. It’s a fact. Instead of having a company filled with individual mavericks, collaboration can bring the input and thoughts of many in order to move in the same direction. It doesn’t imply that every employee is in on every company decision. Collaboration ebbs and flows as needed.

It shapes your culture — Every organization has a culture. If you have one that fosters and allows collaboration, you have a culture that will be more attractive to both current employees and potential future employees. People want to contribute and participate across an organization more than they have in the past. Having a collaborative culture can be an incredible retention strategy.

Better decisions through diversity of thought — Collaboration can eliminate groupthink and the “on the same page” mentality. You need to remember that the “page” everyone is on is the page of the person who holds the most authority in the situation. Don’t get fooled that it’s some phrase of agreement. Diversity of thought doesn’t mean that every idea given will be adopted. However, when you have collaboration, more ideas can be shared openly that may have been ignored. You may actually experience innovation naturally instead of trying to force it through some programmatic effort.

People want to belong — It’s true. People enjoy being connected to others socially and through their work. Even in silos, you’ll find inter-connectivity of the people who work there. Collaboration encourages people to cross departmental lines and you can leverage the strengths that they innately possess in order for the company to thrive. Help people join! They are waiting for it.

This was a great Roundtable and a solid way to wrap another year. I hope you plan to attend the HR Roundtable often in 2018 because you’ll get to experience an environment that models collaboration. I’d love to see you there!

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